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The Nissan Leaf, Getting Charged Up For The Future!

Automotive is an important market for the semiconductor industry.  In turn the semiconductor industry has enabled car manufacturers to make major improvements in safety and performance.  Even though the number of vehicles manufactured grows by low single digits the amount of electronics per vehicle keeps increasing.  In 2008 and 2009 the automotive industry suffered severe losses, but in 2010 this market has seen a strong resurgence.  Semico believes this momentum will drive automotive semiconductor growth for the next few years.

The next stage in the evolution of the automobile is a new energy source – a renewable energy source.  The concern for air pollution and the increasing cost of fossil fuel is driving this.  Both Nissan and Chevrolet have major programs that they are launching in late 2010 and 2011, the Leaf and the Volt, respectively.  The Leaf is all electric plug-in while the Volt is an electric plug-in with additional electric generation from an in car gas powered generator.

On December 4, 2010 I had the opportunity to test drive the Nissan Leaf.  The company has a demonstration tour in the US at this time.  There was an event in Tempe, AZ during an arts festival.  My wife and I had reservations, but there was also a steady stream of people walking in to test drive.

My family is familiar with new automotive technology.  In 2001 we bought one of the first Toyota Prius in Arizona.  My daughter is still driving it.  We liked it so much we bought another Prius in 2008.  My son has taken our other car to college.  My wife and I have put off buying another vehicle until we could try out the Leaf.  We have been waiting since the roll out took a little longer than was first anticipated.  The Leaf will not be available for delivery in Arizona for another few months.

Powering the Leaf – is your house ready for it?

A couple of months before the test drive event our house was surveyed by an electrical contractor.  This is part of the Nissan Leaf program.  A charging station needs to be installed at your home.  There is a government incentive covering the basic cost for $1,200.

I thought this should be no problem.  There is a 220V electrical outlet for my dryer just behind the wall of the garage in just the right spot and I use a gas dryer.  Unfortunately, this line is rated 40 amps.  The Nissan Leaf needs a 220V line that is rated 50 amps.  The electrician checked the fuse box.  The 40 amp line wiring cannot handle a 50 amp circuit breaker.  The only 50 amp line is the one for a stove in the kitchen.  I cook with gas, so he can tap off of this for the car charger.  Keep this in mind for your own home.  If you have an electric stove, do not cook and charge at the same time.

So I will need to run a line underground from my fuse box to the garage and then run a conduit along the edge of the ceiling to the spot for the charger.  This adds about $300 to the base set up that the government credit will cover.  No big deal.

At the test drive event I learned that the Nissan Leaf has several charging options.  One is called the “courtesy” charge.  You can hook up to a regular 110V line for a trickle charge.  This will take about 16 to 20 hr to get the Leaf to a full charge assuming you start at 20%.  The standard charge is the 220V line with the charging station.  This will take about 8 hr to charge up.

There is also the fast charge option.  This is for commercial installation only.  It requires a three-phase 440V system.  On a fast charge the Leaf can be recharged in just 30 minutes.  However, we were warned do not try this more than once a day.  It could limit the lifetime of the battery.  In fact there is a built in safety feature.  If you try to do a fast recharge too soon after the previous one, the Leaf will slow down the recharge rate to protect the battery.  Of course the occasional time that you do a fast charge after another is not a problem.  If you intend to use the Leaf as a taxi or a delivery vehicle that is another story.

The plug on the front of the Leaf is a standard SAE plug.  Therefore, you can use any charger on the market and it will work with other EV cars from other vendors.  The fast charge requires a heavy duty plug.  This is a $700 option – yes we have ordered this.

The Leaf - Under the Hood

We were shown a display of the battery pack.  It is situated under the floor boards between the front and rear axles.  This provides a low center of gravity.  The Leaf has a 24kWh lithium-ion battery with manganese chemistry in 48 modules with 4 cells per module.  It also has a high-response 90kW AC synchronous motor.  The motor and inverter generate 107 horsepower.  Cost to recharge the battery?  Based on an overall average in the US the cost of the electricity is $2.75.  If your electric company has off-peak rates, this can be programmed into the charging.

The Leaf is designed to be able to travel about 100 miles on a full charge.  Of course your mileage may vary.  We were told that in Phoenix in the summer with the AC running on maximum, the range could be 10% to 15% lower.  Actually running the heater impacts the range even more than air conditioning.  Well, lucky me!

The battery has an eight year warranty.  It could last longer, but the maximum charge will deteriorate after that.  It is projected that after 10 years it will hold about 70% of its original maximum level.

The Leaf looks somewhat similar to the Versa.  It is a small compact hatchback.  It seats five, assuming you stick a child or slim adult in the middle of the back seat.  The storage area is short but deep.  Several families with baby strollers tested it and the stroller fit nicely.  One drawback is there is no spare tire.  It is assumed you are using the Leaf as an in-town commuter vehicle.  They provide a roadside repair kit to re-inflate a tire temporarily.  A free three year road side service is provided.

The electrical plugs are in the front under a panel with the logo.  It is released via a latch in the passenger compartment near the driver.  Under the hood you will find the compact electric motor. There is also a small standard 12V battery for the on-board electronics.

A back up camera is standard.  There is in-vehicle telematics – navigation and infotainment.  The system will look for charging stations.  It will let you know how far you can drive before you need to recharge.  Sound is generated for safety when driving under 18 mph.  The Leaf has a cellular connection so you can communicate with your cell phone and initiate various functions remotely.

On the Road!

Driving the Leaf was smooth and pleasant.  I could not detect any difference between it and any other car.  It was very responsive and quiet.  Unfortunately they did not let us take it out on a highway.  However, there was a section of road through Tempe that had little traffic and was pretty wide open.  I was able to accelerate quickly and smoothly to 50 mph.  There was no loud VAROOOM!  Instead there was a low-level HMMMMM as I sped up.  The car was very quiet, so much so that the turn signal sounded loud and obnoxious.

There is plenty of leg room and head room.  It feels like any other car and not some tiny concept car for sci-fi geeks willing to suffer for the future.  OK I am a sci-fi geek but I want to be comfortable.

Charging Stations

One is always concerned with running out of juice while on the road.  There are a few charging stations scattered around Phoenix and Tucson at this time.  Some of these are at locations for the local power companies.

Speaking with a representative for one of the companies making the chargers, she explained that more public charging stations are coming.  They are in discussions with BP and Arco to install at their stations.  She said that within a year there will be stations every 30 to 40 miles along I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson.  This is a heavily trafficked highway.  It is about 125 miles from downtown Phoenix to downtown Tucson.

Comparing Leaf, Volt and Prius

The Nissan Leaf as described is an all electric vehicle that must be plugged in to recharge.  It does not use any gasoline.

The Prius is technically not an electric vehicle, it is a hybrid.  One does not plug in the Prius.  The main drive motor is still an internal combustion engine, but it is augmented by an electric motor.  The gas engine and regenerative braking recharge the battery for the electric motor.  If you need more power, such as going up hill, the electric motor works with the engine boosting power.  The electric motor is equivalent to a two cylinder engine.  In Phoenix I am getting about 45 mpg.

The Chevy Volt is a plug in with a gas generator back up.  The battery is smaller than that for the Volt and is rated for about 40 mile range.  However, if the battery runs down, the gas generator kicks in.  It is not the main drive motor. The electric motor drives the car.  The gas generator recharges the battery automatically.  The Volt has a 9.3 gallon tank.  When the battery is depleted and the gas kicks in the total range is almost 380 miles.  The Volt has the trickle charge (110V) and the standard recharge (220V) but it does not support the 30 minute fast charge mode.  In fact, the Volt does not require an external charging station.  It can be plugged directly into a home’s standard 120-240VAC outlet.


The Nissan Leaf is priced just over $32K.  If you add various options this could go as high as $35K.  There is a federal rebate of $7,500.  The final price is in the mid-to high $20K range.  This is about what I paid for the Prius in 2001.

The Chevy Volt is close to $42K base price; higher with options.  With the federal rebate the Volt will still be about $10K higher than the Leaf.

The Volt is more expensive but it does offer more range.  The Leaf was not designed for long range driving.  It is assumed that one drives the Leaf as a commuter car.  For long distances if you do not fly, one has another vehicle or you can always rent one for the occasional family vacation.

The one wrinkle right now is that both Nissan and Chevy are rolling out their products in limited regions.  The Chevy Volt is not available in Arizona at this time.

EV Impact on Semiconductors

The electric vehicle will provide more opportunity for semiconductor vendors.  I could not do a tear down at the test drive event.  An EV needs power management, power ICs, and controllers and processors.  There is also the electronics for the charging station.

The EV will likely represent a small portion of cars for the next few years.  It was over ten years ago that the Toyota Prius was launched.  Since then about 2 million Prius have shipped cumulatively.  Toyota now has several other hybrid models.  Other car manufacturers have one or more hybrid models.

Further innovations and improvements for EV’s and the battery technology are likely to occur.

In the meantime, my wife was certainly charged up by the test drive.  She cannot wait to get her hands on a Nissan Leaf of her own.

Tony Massimini, Analyst

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